Friday, October 6, 2017

The Panic Button

This is the time of year that my inbox fills up with panicky questions from parents.   In this article, I'm going to tell you exactly what to do when your child misses easy practice test problems and you panic. I've said this before but you need me to repeat it over and over again and you don't ever check your answers.

This is much better than the time of year (rapidly approaching) in which I'll get 100 questions like "I just found out that my child is taking a test called the CoGAT in 2 days.  Do you have any advice?" I actually have an aswer.

The Practice Test Panic Button

Step 1 - Stop Panicking
You're children are way smarter than my children were at that age and it doesn't matter because I used even way harder problems than you are using, and my kids missed most of them.  If my child got the problem correct, it would be a waste of time, and with the clock ticking, we can't afford any time wasting.

On normal not super hard problems, I usually observe a 50% error rate going into the test.  The parent voice doesn't kick in until you are not in the room.  Then in the child's brain it's like 'read the question reread the question look at all the answers choose one no guessing do it over check your work' and the child will need therapy after the test.

Step 2 - Backtrack
I used to talk about backtracking 6 years ago.  It was my go-to-crutch.  I demphasized it in my books because step 3 is faster and more effective, but Step 3 requires more time per question.

Backtracking is very useful in test prep situations, trying to do advanced math after skipping a year or two, and dealing with bad days for kids under 8 years old.

When you are struggling with folding questions, get out the paper, scissors and a whole puncher.  Spend some time doing the basics.  Cut out some shapes for the figure matrices and build your own figure analogies.  Even if you don't devise a corporate skills based training program in shapes, you'll take the pain out of test prep and it's a nice break.

Feel free to take a break and have your child make up their own questions one day.

Step 3 - Make An Easier Question
This is my new go to method and it has a bigger payoff but is harder to do.  Reduce the problem to the simplest variant you can think of.  The quantitative/visual-spatial problems in Shape Size Color Count are based on this method, as is problem solving in Geometry and Calculus, competitive math, and every thing in between.  It's more than powerful.

The premise of this approach is that you take all factors out of a hard problem and slowly add them back in so that your child can take an intuitive leap on each factor and own the complicated logic behind it.  We're looking for a light bulb to go off.

He are some examples:
  • The simplest version of the figure matrix you are struggling with is the top row with a piece of paper over the rest of the problem.  Slowly introduce the next 5 shapes (the bottom row has 1 shape and the answer set has 4 more).
  • For quantitative problems, the simplest problem is x = 1 or shape = 1 or even 1 = 1.  You can add elements back in.  I know this sounds silly, it takes experience to start with the right level and you can't go wrong with 1 = 1.
This teaching method goes way beyond super powers into the miraculous.

By the way, this year I've been watching 4 year olds who are doing Shape Size Color Count + Pre-K Phonics and Conceptual Vocabulary and the results are amazing as I predicted.  If your child is going this route, warn me at the end of K because I've got something special in the works.

Step 4 - The Blind Coach
All 9 sections of the test rest on a foundation of vocabulary and cognitive processes that manifest themselves in verbal skills.  Vocabulary is behind the whole thing, including the shape that gets wider instead of bigger.

Take out a blank piece of paper and ask your child to tell you how to draw the problem.   Take liberties on vague terms and don't put things where they belong unless instructed to do so.   This will frustrate some kids - what with having to think and do work and all - so you can draw a smiley face on a shape because he never said not to do so.

Expect about 5 iterations while your child learns to articulate what he sees.  What is actually happening is that the child realizes that what he sees and articulates is not what is actually on the page.  There's a lot more.  Light bulb.

For the verbal section, there is a variant called The World's Dumbest Parent, where the child has to explain every word to you and you just don't get it.  You kind of get the word 'spatula', but not quite.  Who uses it?  If it's in a group of things, what is that group called?  What is it used with?  Doing what?  Etc.  That only leaves 6 more words to work through before you can actually do the problem.  I'm hoping that experience sticks with your child when he's confused on the test.

I'm shooting for the verbal version of 'draw a picture'.  Draw a picture is a great problem solving strategy but lousy for problems that already start out as a picture.  I realize that some kids have different learning styles: visual, verbal, auditory, kinetic, etc.  These are all founded on a variety of previously learned skills and burned pathways.  During cognitive skills practice, I want to develop all of these learning styles.

Step 5 - Don't Do Things The Normal Way
There are a variety of other tricks I use with different age groups and different skill gaps.  For example, with fast answerers, we go through the whole book focusing on this question on each problem "what is the trick in this question" or "tell me an easier way to solve it" and I am not the slightest bit interested in the actual solution because I threw them away after I bought the book.   Or I announce the solution I like, which is the wrong one, and make the child prove to me that they are correct.  Or instead of giving the answer, I make them prove to me that their answer is the best one, choice-by-choice.

At some point you need to tell your child what to do when they are stuck on a question.  More importantly, in this article, I'm telling the parent what to do when stuck on a question.  Something's going to rub off on the child, either panic and frustration and impatience, or let's take a step back and try something different.  It's hard not to smile when I'm drawing the worst version of a matrix per instruction, staring with 1 = 1, or taking 20 minutes to do a single 3 minute question because I'm so dumb.

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